CHARLOTTE — At the conclusion of Wednesday evening, the final night of the NBA’s 2013-14 regular season, all of the playoff matchups were finalized.
The Bulls, the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed, will take on Washington, with Game 1 of the first-round series at 6 p.m. at the United Center. The Bulls’ overtime loss to Charlotte kept them in fourth place to finish the campaign, perhaps good fortune in the long run—they will avoid facing Brooklyn in the opening round, not to mention a potential matchup with Miami in the second round, with shaky, top-seeded Indiana looming instead—after third-seeded Toronto lost to New York and the Nets, resting players for a second straight night, also fell.
But the Wizards, who beat the Bulls in two out of their three regular-season matchups — the Bulls’ lone win, earlier this month, was a rout — are no slouch. Led by the young, dynamic backcourt of All-Star point guard John Wall and second-year sharpshooter Bradley Beal, the international interior tandem of center Marcin Gortat and power forward Nene, who recently returned to the lineup from injury,, the underrated small-forward duo of Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster, and a bench that includes grizzled veterans Al Harrington and Andre Miller, it’s a deep team with plenty of offensive firepower.
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“The speed of Wall and they have quality bigs up front. Beal’s a terrific player, Ariza,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau observed. “They’re tough. You look at their conference record, it’s very good. They’ve been a good road team.”
Bulls’ sixth man Taj Gibson added: “Tough team, man. Tough, tough team. They give us so many problems in the regular season. Great shooters. They’ve got some great bigs in Nene and Gortat. John Wall is playing some phenomenal basketball. Bradley Beal is playing great basketball, too. Their bench is going to be loaded up. I don’t know, it’s going to be tough.”
All-Star center Joakim Noah concurred: “They’ve got a very tough frontcourt in Nene and Gortat. We have to be ready for that. They have a great backcourt as well with Wall and Beal. They’ve got a lot of talent, so they’re definitely a tough matchup. It’s not going to be easy. Every game’s going to be a tough battle, but I think we’re a team that’s battle tested. We know what it takes and like I said, it’s exciting. You never know what’s going to happen in the playoffs. I just can’t wait to compete.”
Veteran floor general Kirk Hinrich briefly played for the Wizards in the 2010-11 season, after being dealt to Washington by the Bulls in the summer of 2010, then being traded to Atlanta by the Wizards in the middle of the season. While many of the pieces have changed since his tenure in the nation’s Capital, Hinrich got to witness the rookie version of Wall up close and has seen him develop from afar.
“He’s had a great year. He’s a great player. It’s going to be a challenge,” Hinrich said. “He came into the league, he was very talented, a good player and just kind of a natural maturation. He’s gotten to an All-Star level, and he’s a great player and great guys, so I’m happy for him.
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“They’re a good team and if we expect to win that series, we have to play very well,” he went on to explain. “We’re going to figure it out the next couple days. They’re a talented team. They’ve earned their spot and we’re going to have to play well.”
Backup point guard D.J. Augustin, who will also likely see some time matched up with Wall, concurred with his teammate’s assessment of the speedy Wall.
“He’s a great player. He can do it all. He pushes the pace, gets everybody involved, he can score, so it’s going to be a tough challenge, I thin for me and for everybody. But if we just play team defense like we did in the past against them and just play hard, it’s a different game now. Playoffs are totally different than the regular season,” Augustin said. “They have it all. They have some bigs that are pretty good in Gortat and Nene, and obviously their guards are good, too. So we’ve just got to be ready for everybody. Like I said, if we just play team defense, and help each other and communicate, I think we’ll be pretty good.”
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Jimmy Butler, the Bulls’ designated defensive stopper on the perimeter, could also be assigned to Wall on occasion, but will most likely be tasked with chasing around Beal, who’s best known for his perimeter jumper.
“Everybody in this league’s an NBA player, so I look at every matchup the same and try to win the matchup,” Butler explained. “Try to know my opponent better than they know me.”